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Trump and Migration after 500 Days

July 9, 2018

President Trump took office January 20, 2017 and issued three executive orders during his first week: to step up border and interior enforcement of immigration laws and to bar the entry of persons from particular countries and reduce refugee admissions. The border and interior enforcement orders are being implemented, the number of refugees has been reduced below 50,000 a year, and the US Supreme Court in June 2018 upheld the President's authority to bar citizens of particular countries who may pose security risks.

President Trump, assessing his performance after 500 days in office June 5, 2018, took credit for "lower crime and illegal immigration, stronger borders…best economy and jobs ever." Trump cited improved border security, more arrests of unauthorized foreigners in the US, a crackdown on MS-13 and other gangs.

President Trump in September 2017 cancelled the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program created by President Obama in June 2012 that gave 690,000 unauthorized foreigners who arrived in the US before age 16 and graduated from US high schools two-year renewable work and residence permits. In most states, DACA youth can receive driver's licenses.

Trump gave Congress six months to fix DACA with legislation, and in February 2018 released a four-part immigration reform proposal that included a path to US citizenship over 12 years for up to 1.8 million unauthorized foreigners brought to the US as youth, a $25 billion for a wall on the Mexico-US border, an end to the diversity visa lottery that awards 50,000 immigrant visas a year to countries that sent fewer than 50,000 immigrants during the previous five years, and restrictions on the right of immigrants and US citizens to sponsor their relatives for immigrant visas after current backlogs are cleared, a bid to reduce chain migration.

The Senate voted 60-39 against the Trump plan in February 2018. Several other immigration reform bills also failed to achieve the required 60 votes, including a 54-45 vote for a bipartisan proposal that would have coupled legal status for 1.8 million unauthorized youth with funding for more walls and fences on the Mexico-US border. A third measure that would have provided a path to citizenship for the unauthorized brought to the US as children and required DHS to implement a border security strategy by 2021 failed on a 52-47 vote, and a fourth measure to crack down on sanctuary cities failed on a 54-45 vote.

Immigration headlines in spring 2018 were dominated by the "caravan" of 1,200 Central Americans traveling through Mexico to apply for asylum in the US. The organizers of the caravan distributed flyers in Honduras and other countries advertising that they were leading people through Mexico in a group for safety to the US border to apply for asylum. Many of those who joined the caravan have relatives in the US.

Applicants for asylum at the US border are interviewed, often by phone, to determine whether they have a "credible fear" of returning to their country of citizenship. If the answer is yes, applicants have an opportunity to present their cases to an immigration judge, who can decide whether the foreigner faces persecution at home because of his or her race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.

The question is what to do with asylum applicants while they wait for hearings before immigration judges. Parents arriving illegally with children are usually released into the US until they appear before an immigration judge, prompting some to bring children with them.

The Trump administration changed this policy in May 2018, charging all adults who illegally enter the US with a crime. Since children cannot be jailed, prosecuting all unauthorized entrants led to over 2,000 children being separated from their parents and an outcry against the new separation policy that led to DHS in June 2018 detaining parents with their children while they wait for asylum hearings.

Meanwhile, some House Republicans in May 2018 tried to force a vote on immigration reform via a discharge petition. To avoid a split within House Republicans, there were votes on two immigration bills in June 2018. The Secure America's Future Act, favored by those opposed to amnesty, failed in the House on a vote of 193-231. A version of the Trump immigration plan, HR 6134, failed on a 121-301 vote. The House is expected to vote on a farm guest worker bill in July 2018.

There are three major lessons of Trump's first 500 days in office. First, Trump has used the presidency to highlight the dangers posed by immigration, citing threats to Americans from gang members and others who commit crimes in the US. The result is a sense that immigrants may increase threats rather than provide benefits for Americans.

Second, DHS has stepped up enforcement, slowing unauthorized entries and increasing removals from the interior. Efforts to locate foreigners convicted of US crimes and to inspect workplaces have led to "innocent" unauthorized foreigners being detected and deported, spreading fear in immigrant communities. The effects of removing unauthorized workers have so far affected specific businesses, not entire sectors that depend on such workers such as agriculture.

Third, industries that employ a high share of unauthorized workers such as agriculture are responding to the slowdown in illegal immigration by mechanizing where possible and hiring more legal guest workers via the H-2A program. Farmers would like changes to the H-2A program that reduce the cost of guest workers, including an end to requirements that they must provide free housing and pay a super-minimum wage to H-2A workers, but are proving willing to incur labor costs of $20 or more an hour to be assured of productive H-2A workers who are tied to their farms by contracts.

The map below shows the the distribution of the estimated 6.2 million unauthorized Mexicans in the US, including 2.1 million in California and 1.1 million in Texas.

The share of foreign criminals among those arrested by ICE has been rising; three-fourths of those arrested in FY17 were convicted of US crimes. Interior arrests by ICE fell under President Obama, especially of those without US criminal convictions. However, interior arrests rose 30 percent in FY17 to 143,000.

Nearly three-quarters of those arrested by ICE in 2017 had past criminal convictions